NASHVILLE — Captain Steven Stamkos said that with the Lightning missing the playoffs last season, players realized they couldn't just "flip the switch" for Friday's opener.
That's why finishing the preseason strong Saturday was so important. After losing four of its first six exhibitions, Tampa Bay saved its best for last in a 3-2 overtime win against the Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Nikita Kucherov had the winner.
It was the Lightning's most complete, physical game. The new-look power play scored twice. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like a No. 1. Stamkos racked up six shots. The defense gave up much fewer grade-A chances than in recent games. "Resilient game for us," said Alex Killorn, who had both power-play goals. "That was the closest to an actual NHL game (in the preseason).
Also, the Lightning escaped camp healthy, other than Michael Bournival (undisclosed injury, day-to-day).
Here's what was learned in the preseason:
Key cogs healthy
The most important question was whether Steven Stamkos was ready. He hadn't played since mid-November knee surgery, and he was encouraged after appearing in four exhibitions. At times, he looked like he had never been out, flying around the ice, blasting one-timers. He is still working on his timing but is generating plenty of chances. He's expected to be in the lineup for Friday's opener against the Panthers. Same for wing Ryan Callahan, whose surgically repaired hip isn't bothering him. He did leave late in Saturday's game limping after blocking a shot and didn't return. Jon Cooper said he was held out as a precaution ("Sometimes you have to protect players from themselves").
Few roster surprises
Though the Lightning insisted spots were open, there likely won't be many surprises in the end. It is down to 25 players, with the final forward spot coming down to injured Michael Bournival, Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont and Yanni Gourde. Gourde appears to be a lock. Dumont's faceoff forte gives him an edge. Conacher is potentially the odd-man out. He would have to clear waivers to go to AHL Syracuse. Looks like Erik Condra (back) could start the season on injured reserve. Rosters must be set by Tuesday.
No rush with Sergachev
Though everything that defenseman Mikhail Sergachev has shown in camp screams that he's NHL ready, the Lightning will take its time with the decision. It has until Sergachev's 10th NHL game this season to send him back to juniors (Windsor of the Ontario League), or else his entry-level contract kicks in (getting him closer to free agency). If Sergachev plays 40 or more NHL games, the Lightning won't get a conditional second-round draft pick from Montreal as part of June's Jonathan Drouin trade.
The only consistency with the lines has been that Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have been attached at the hip. Every other line has been juggled. Vladislav Namestnikov could start out on the top line with Stamkos/Kucherov. Brayden Point has played wing on the top two lines but was at center for Saturday's preseason finale (between Callahan and Alex Killorn). One issue will be whether the Lightning can get enough secondary scoring. Stamkos and Kucherov can't do it all.
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The Lightning had the league's sixth-best power play last season, at 22.8 percent. But it lost playmaking quarterback Drouin, dealt to Montreal in the offseason. "You're not going to replace Jo," assistant coach Todd Richards said. However, Richards believes there is enough talent to do things differently. And the Lightning might have found something with Stamkos and Kucherov on the same unit, in opposite circles. Killorn is the benefactor, with three goals in the past two games, all from the slot.
Plenty of depth
This was the deepest training camp roster since Cooper has been here. And several prospects showed they'll be capable callups. Forward Alex Volkov, a 2017 draft pick, got a strong look until getting cut last week and could be among the first called up if there's a top-six injury. Matt Peca had his best camp and will be counted on. Forwards Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph should get a look in their first pro seasons. Defenseman Erik Cernak was a pleasant surprise and will be part of a loaded AHL Syracuse blue line.
No Dotchin effect
We don't know exactly what defenseman Jake Dotchin did to get in the doghouse. But he was limited to one preseason game (Saturday) due to breaking a team rule. It hasn't affected his roster spot. He has been paired consistently with usual partner Victor Hedman in practice and Saturday. Dotchin looked good in his debut.